- Avatars of Story
Whither for the pleasure of going a few rounds with a sneaky author? Italo Calvino and his book If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1979) comes to mind. Calvino offers snippets from a number of different stories (ostensibly written by different authors) into which he maliciously drops the reader and then pulls him out at particularly engaging plot points. By the end of the book, which you, the reader, have helped write, you are worn out but giddy from the ride. If this is postmodernism, bring it on.
Marie-Laure Ryan is a fellow traveler. Early in her intriguing new book, Avatars of Story, she defends that notorious 1999 biography of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris in which Morris gives a young Reagan an imaginary friend and an entourage of imaginary acquaintances. "This daring narrative move," she writes, "enables Morris to weave a much more immersive and fluid narration than allowed by the standards of historical scholarship" (p. 44). What saves Morris is that he doesn't avoid facts; he merely narrativizes them. The blurring between fact and fiction in postmodern writing lays bare the fraud of policing genre borders for the sake of tradition.
For Ryan, the nature of reality itself has never been more in play. You don't need to be a Kierkegaardian scholar or a Hindu priest or a superannuated Orange County ninny to understand that. You merely have to turn [End Page 510] on the telly. Ryan has a good time pointing out that shows like Survivor and Big Brother may begin as staged productions but the action that arises as the players play on that stage is altogether real. "By placing human subjects under the never-ending surveillance of cameras," Ryan muses, "and by labeling the resulting spectacle reality, these shows seem to have been conceived for a specific purpose of implementing Foucault's dystopic vision of a panoptic society, and Baudrillard's doctrine of the (hyper)reality of the image in contemporary culture" (p. 59).
But it is on the radio that Ryan finds narrative in fighting trim—neither looking forward nor backward. It just is. She offers an analysis of a Chicago Cubs broadcast in which the listener can delight in the ability of the announcers to build a narrative of a game as the game unfolds. The listener is already comfortable not just with the medium and the broadcast format; the listener has also suffered with the team and its travails in previous game-stories. Only in the post-game wrap-up does the tense change. The announcers are able to sift through various scenarios that might have resulted in a different score, and they can muse on what this game will mean for the next.
Unfortunately, the book's weakest chapters are those on computer games and web-based narratives, the stars of Ryan's show. At first glance, both the computer and the web would greatly appeal to the narrative adventurer. The computer has impressive data storage and delivery powers. Accessible coding languages encourage the democratic creation of rich simulated environments. The web offers the possibility of unique and often anonymous connections in those environments. Yet just letting the computer throw out random pieces of a narrative jigsaw puzzle isn't much fun. Nor is having too many choices of narrative possibilities. For all her virtuoso command of the digital media jargon, Ryan reveals herself to be more traditionalist than she lets on. Authorship is key to narrative pleasure. Either you've got to enjoy "writing" the narrative or enjoy the experience of someone else at the controls. But at the controls they must be. "The main reason for using narrative concepts in game studies is to come to terms with the imaginative dimension of computer games," concludes Ryan, "a dimension that will be overlooked if we concentrate exclusively on rules, problem solving, and competition" (p. 179).
Serena Williams, fresh from her surprise victory at the 2007 Australian Open, appeared on Conan O'Brien's late-night show. O'Brien, ever the...